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September 17th, 2003 12:00 am MATT BUCKINGHAM | Books


New Books Plucked from the Publishing Fringes

Landmark Books introduced history to a whole generation of Americans growing up in the 1950s and '60s. These weren't silly kiddie books cranked out by hack writers but lively works by major authors aimed at a young audience. Robert Penn Warren reminded young readers of the Alamo, Shirley Jackson thrilled young girls with her harrowing account of the Salem witch trials, and C.S. Forester ran up the Jolly Roger with a book about the Barbary Pirates. (Richard L. Neuberger, a U.S. senator from Oregon, even contributed two titles to the series: one on the Lewis and Clark expedition, the other on the Canadian Mounties.)

Many of the books have remained in print over the years, although Random House stopped adding new titles to the series in 1970. Now Random House is reviving its Landmark Books line with all-new titles to appear alongside reprints from the original series. Among the first of these is Before Columbus, author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel's account of Leif Eriksson's pre-Columbian discovery of North America.

Baby boomers may be disappointed, however, to find new entries in the series are only about half as long as the books from the Eisenhower era. Reading level has also dropped from ages 9 to 12 to 8 and up. But if Before Columbus is any indication, the black-and-white photo illustrations favored by the new books will be a substantial improvement over the two-color line drawings featured in the old series.

Kimmel remains faithful to the spirit of the original books by giving her young readers a rousing story first and cold, hard facts about her research methods second. This isn't history in the strict, adult sense, but more serious-minded youngsters may find it a refreshing alternative to the bewildering overkill of Harry Potter.

before columbus: the leif eriksson expedition
By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
(Landmark Books, 112 pages, $14.95)
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